If you’re interested in personal performance like me, no doubt you’ve read a lot about focus and energy management the last few years. New Studies claim that focus and willpower is like a tank of gas that runs dry if you use it to much during the day. Other New Studies shows that meditation (the practice of focusing and refocusing for short periods of time) increases focus.
So which is it? How does focus work? I think their both right.
Focus seems to work very much like a muscle, if you deliberately practice it, you can focus deeper and with more control (i.e. it gets easier to start and stop focusing). But it also seems to work a lot like endurance, the more time you spend focused, the less mental energy you’ll have at the end of the day.
Which is why I try to focus deliberately, constantly nudging myself when I get distracted, and take resting very seriously. You can’t work with perfect focus forever. You might be able to effect how much you can focus, but always be aware of your limits. When I step beyond my limits, I get annoyed, cranky, feel frustrated about not getting anywhere, and spend even more energy that I don’t have. It’s a slippery slope.
How do you manage your focus?
The week before Christmas I decided to try a radical experiment. I was rereading an old book on productivity that recommended a week long total media fast. And for some reason, I put the book down and did it.
The fast is designed like a media diet. For 5 days, you are only allowed to consume music and less than one hour of fiction in book form (perfect for me as I read when going to bed). That is no TV, no shows, no podcasts, no audiobooks, no Facebook nor Twitter. Nothing readable at all, except directly related to any work you are doing right at that moment. No research. No distractions. The idea is to force yourself to completely give up mindless consumption of information.
I honestly didn’t think this would be very difficult since I didn’t consume much TV, don’t really listen to music all that much, and see very few shows. Turned out I was massively underestimating how much media I consumed.
The first few days felt… wierd (for want of a better word). I had to stop myself putting on my headphones several times, there was nothing to listen to. I spent many long minutes just looking at people while waiting. Waiting for the subway. Waiting for my coffee. Waiting for some website to load.
On day three it started becoming difficult. I went home that night and didn’t do anything.
Eventually I started reciting lines from old movies and books just to distract myself. I wrote down thoughts like I was pitching someone. And I’m pretty sure I started to stress my girlfriend out. In a phrase, I was bored. Incredibly bored, but not tired. Which came as a huge surprise!
I was more productive than usual. I got more done in less time. But the interesting thing is that was less mentally drained from work. Even doing taxes took less willpower than it ever has before.
I’m not sure I can continue living without media. And I am pretty sure the benefits will wear off if this was to become the new normal. But having experienced the difference has been eye opening.
I recommend you try this media diet. It’s only 5 days. And you might learn a lot about how you spend your mental energy.